I am most grateful that this talk was advertised as being my thoughts on what should be expected of us as Orthodox Christians in regard to prayer and worship. This frees me from the pretence of even trying to make any kind of scholarly presentation on the matter. I will share with you my thoughts on what should be expected of us in worship and prayer.
The way of Christ is the way of the Cross, and the way of the Christian can be no different. The Lord told us that we must take up our cross daily in order to follow Him. He has taught us that we must indeed die to ourselves if we are to live. The Living God demands nothing less of us than all that we are and all that we have. So the matter of what is required of us in prayer and worship as well as in all other aspects of life is merely a matter of figuring out how we can give ourselves totally to it, because worship and prayer are, I believe with all my heart, the summit of our life on this earth. The Christian way is martyrdom, a total witness made with our whole life. Worship and prayer are the ultimate expression of this witness. They are at the same time the nourishment, the source and the fulfillment of our life in Christ. As the holy martyrs were making their witness through their tortures and deaths, they lifted their whole lives in worship, and the first martyr, St. Stephen, saw the heavens open and the Son of God at the right hand of the Father. Many of the holy martyrs were granted a similar vision, lifted up to the heavenly worship. We have such a glorious "cloud of witnesses" in our own century, even blood relatives of some of those who sit here. We hear of the wonderful Vigils and Divine Liturgies celebrated in the corners of prison cells or in huts in the bitter exile in the far north. We hear of bishops, priests and faithful Christians praying ceaselessly while being brutalized in the most sadistic and inhuman ways. We remember the singing of Ss Elizabeth and Barbara and those martyred with them in their wonderful temple in the earth. These martyrs from distant centuries and from our own are not just heroes to be admired from a safe distance. They are our brethren in Christ, closer to us than our own families. And they are our examples!
The values of our society stand in stark contrast to this call to martyrdom. The enemy stirred up revolutionary unrest in Holy Russia and hundreds of thousands of martyrs and confessors shone forth, but he is using a different approach with us. Perhaps God mercifully exempted us from the severe trials that the holy martyrs and confessors underwent, knowing that we are too weak for those trials, but He has allowed the enemy to try us nonetheless. Perhaps those who still watch television have noticed that every week or so the television medium becomes bolder and bolder in its total disregard of any pretended respect for God and His righteousness or of human dignity, in its graphic portrayal of indecency, violence, carnage, in its greater and greater fascination and honoring of the evil spirits and the devil himself. This is reflected in all the other entertainment media: radio, theater, music, and sports. Have you noticed that it is more and more difficult to turn off the television and the radio? This is no accident; the media specialists are experts in finding ways to make us more and more completely addicted to their "proclamations." These are psychological addictions, which are at times even more powerful than the physical ones. Have you noticed how the medical profession is more and more ready to offer us drugs, not just to soothe our pains but to alter our moods at any given moment, drugs which make us insensitive to the things of the spirit, less and less dependent upon God and more and more dependent upon drugs for relief, a sense of well-being, and an artificial euphoria? If we are too enthusiastic, we must have a tranquilizer; if we are depressed, we must have an antidepressant. There is literally a drug for everything, and even for stimulating the very passions which we Christians spend our lives trying to bring under subjection to the spirit. Have you noticed that sports heroes, movie stars, and government officials are bold enough to act in increasingly more savage fashion? The enemy is using the heterodox religions which call themselves "Christian" to accomplish his purposes. There is the religion of prosperity which says that those who worship God and live a decent life will be rewarded with material benefits of all sorts, implying that the poor are merely unfaithful or bad people. Gradually, the idea of worshipping other spirits, actually demons, is entering these faiths as New Age ideas intrude themselves insidiously or openly into even mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic denominations. Halloween is becoming a national holiday, equal to the pagan representations of "Christmas" and "Easter." We can say that there is a sort of Pagan Winter Festival which begins with Halloween and ends with "Valentine's Day," when the Pagan Spring Festival begins. All the world's holidays have been paganized, leading attention more and more to the Prince of this world.
For whatever reasons—and I am not really capable of analyzing the reasons—our values are permeated with the disease of relativism and minimalism. Everything is allowable and nothing should get our full commitment, including our Christian Faith. And this disease has also infected the Church, especially in America and Western Europe. Somehow we have been infected with the idea that there is a minimal amount of work, of faith, of commitment, of striving, of love, etc., etc., that is necessary for us to be considered, for lack of a better phrase, "Christians in good standing." What are the absolute minimum beliefs we must hold to be considered Orthodox? What are the minimum amount of good works we can do and still be considered respectable Christians? What is the minimum prayer rule we must have in the morning and in the evening? Which Services on which days must we attend to be considered reasonably, or at least respectably, pious? How much can we shorten the Services and still be considered traditional? What are the most social activities we can have in proportion to worship and still be considered a church rather than a club? This disease of minimalism accompanied by a suspicion of too much commitment is one that has attacked the Orthodox in relatively recent times. Even five centuries ago, when the rest of the world was already infected with the darkness of the so-called Renaissance, in the middle of the sixteen century we have a wonderful work, the Domostroi*, which gives us a glimpse into Holy Russia and shows us that total commitment was still the ideal after five and a half centuries of Christianity in Russia.
The Domostroi tells us that our brethren then were expected to spend many hours each day in prayer. Following is a series of quotes from the Domostroi: "Every day in the evening, any man who can read should sing vespers, compline, and the midnight office with his wife, children, and servants—quietly, attentively, with gentle bearing, with prayer and bows, carefully and in unison. After the service do not eat or drink at all. These instructions apply to everyone." "In the morning after rising, pray to God. Sing matins and the hours. On Sundays and holidays hold service, praying silently and with gentle demeanor. Sing in unison. Listen attentively. Burn incense before the saints. If no one knows how to sing the services, it is enough just to pray every evening and morning." "Men should not fail to attend church services every day—vespers … " etc. "In church stand during every service. Pray with trepidation and silently. At home sing compline, midnight office, and the hours. Anyone who adds more services for the sake of his salvation—as long as it is done freely— will receive a greater reward from God." "Do not leave the church before the end of the service; always arrive in time for the beginning." "Every Christian should always have his prayer rope in his hands, and the Jesus prayer perpetually on his lips. In the church, at home, the marketplace, walking, standing, or sitting, anywhere, as said the Prophet David, `in every place where he hath dominion, Bless the Lord, O my soul.'" (Psalm 103:22). So in the sixteenth century Christians were expected to be in church for the whole cycle of services and still read other services at home for those who could not attend and the rest of the time to pray on the prayer rope. Each Christian was encouraged to pray without ceasing, to fulfill the admonition of the Holy Apostle Paul. So here in the middle of the sixteenth century the goal was still clearly total commitment to the prayer and worship of the Church.
Are we today less in need of unceasing prayer than were our ancestors? Are we less in need of worship than the holy martyrs? Do we have some right or obligation to shorten the Services of the Church to make them more acceptable to men of our day to keep people from thinking that we have completely lost our minds? Do we accede to the complaint that people simply will not attempt to fulfill the ancient discipline of prayer and worship? Is our world substantially different than theirs? The answer to all these questions is a completely logical and practical "No!" The Church as always is poised to fight back the attacks of this world and its foolish rationalizations to intrude upon and compromise her standards. We still need the Psalter read every week; we still need the Gospels and Epistles read each year. We also need the edifying readings from the Old Testament throughout the year. According to the Typicon, any other order is "irrational," against the reasonable order established for our salvation. It is not enough for us just to maintain what we have done in the past, giving the lame excuse that we are just weak and sinful people. Precisely because we are weak and sinful, we must follow the order that the Church has maintained over the centuries, for no other reason than for our salvation and the salvation of the world. The time has come for us to redouble our efforts to be faithful to the order of worship and prayer the Church has given us. The attack is devastating pecisely because it is so subtle. The time has come for us to reorder our lives so that we can make faithful prayer and the worship of God the center of our life.
Many argue that we no longer live around the church, that we cannot walk from our fields and businesses to the Services. Many of us drive many miles to the church for the relatively few Services available there. But, being honest with ourselves, we must admit that we have chosen to live miles away from the church. In most cases we could live near the church and walk or drive a short distance to worship. We care more about jobs, neighborhoods, schools, convenience to shopping, etc., etc. than we do about the worship of the church, which very often we attend only once a week, if that often. Is it more important for our children to have a good school—and indeed there are almost no good schools, either public or private—in our society. "The church, after all, is just one aspect of our busy lives, the place where we fulfill our minimal obligation, hoping that this minimal participation will be enough to get us into God's Kingdom, along with, of course, living a decent life." How foolish we are! This is like saying that the Kingdom of God is just one of the kingdoms to which we wish to belong, but in fact this is exactly what we are saying. When the Lord comes, will He find any faithful upon the earth? When the Antichrist comes, what an easy time he will have with us! How then may we prepare ourselves? We know that we have one goal in this life—union with God, so that we can be with Him and grow in Him forever in His heavenly kingdom. All of life is for that one purpose, to prepare ourselves for entry into His kingdom. Do we really want to think about how little we can do and still attain this goal? Do we want to risk everything for the sake of being minimalists and doing the least we can do? This is not what our holy faith teaches us. How should a Christian use his time?
Let us reflect upon the Church's liturgical day, beginning with Midnight Office and ending with Compline. It begins the day and ends the day and punctuates the whole day with the praise of God and with prayers for our salvation and the salvation of others. This cycle of services was developed both in cathedrals and so-called parish churches as well as in monasteries. We cannot say that it was set up especially for monastics; the church has never made a distinction between the services in monasteries and in parish churches. We have one Typicon for the whole church. Everybody, monks and those who are not monks alike, needs salvation equally. Even with various attempts to change this so that there is a difference between monastic and parish practice, it is still true that we have only one Typicon, only one order of prayer and worship for all Orthodox Christians. Parish clergy and monks as well may decide to shorten the services as provided in the Typicon, but nonetheless the standard remains the same. In regard to this shortening of services our holy Father, St. John Maximovich, wrote: "In the case of the inability to fulfill all that is laid out in the typicon, we must fulfill all that is in our power, preserving its general structure and main content." The order was established for the salvation of souls, and souls are of exactly the same nature throughout the history of our race. We are no less in need of salvation than our fathers of old. The nature of our souls is not a whit different than theirs. The content of the Services is scriptural and dogmatic in essence and not cultural. They were not modeled on cultural paradigms; they are modeled on the universal needs of human beings for salvation. They are as valid and necessary for us as for our ancestors. Any valid development involves primarily adding new material as new saints are glorified and new celebrations are established. It becomes our business to determine how we can receive the grace from the treasury of the Church's ongoing worship rather than how we can find ways to reform or modify the Divine Services to fit our wants. They give us strength; they give us peace; they give us the grace to fill our every need; they give us rest. We will never find relaxation or true enjoyment from the entertainments of this world, certainly not from watching television, listening to worldly music, or reading worldly literature. To quote St. John Maximovich again: "Divine Services combine in themselves prayer, which is uplifted to God by the faithful, the receiving of God's grace in communion with Him and the instruction of the faithful." Here we learn what we need to grow in the life of Christ. The Services become our source of strength by giving us union with God, the Source of our life, and they are our primary teacher. This is true also for our personal prayer, if it is truly faithful. This prayer is an extension of the prayer of the Church into our own daily life, lived moment by moment. It opens the compassionate love of God for us. It is the channel by which He strengthens and nourishes us. It is life for us, and without it we will simply perish, body and soul together.
First, we clergy must stop making the excuse that no one will attend the Services even if we serve them, and begin to have the Services necessary for our own salvation and the salvation of our people, whether anyone decides to come or not. When Father John Sergiev came into a wretched little place called Kronstadt, few of the people were interested in church; more were interested in drinking alcohol to escape the horror of their miserable life, were engaged in the daily struggle to feed their families or they were attached to one or more revolutionary programs which falsely promised to provide them a better way of life. Many of us also struggle in a miserable world to support our families and try to find ways to give greater happiness for our children. We involve ourselves in many activities, and we desperately struggle to find a balance among them: work, home, family, soccer practice, music lessons, television, social obligations, and also church for a short time each week to bless it all. But this was not the way of St. John of Kronstadt. There was one activity, one commitment, God and His righteousness, the Kingdom of God, and the earthly expression of that Kingdom, the Church of God. He centered his whole life in the Body of Christ, from 3:00 AM when he began preparing himself for Matins, through the Divine Liturgy, then praying for, comforting, directing, healing and feeding hundreds of people, then the evening Services of the Church, then more time to pray for, comfort, direct and heal, and feed those needing him, then at midnight the three or less hours of sleep. The same with our holy father, St. John (Maximovitch) of San Francisco, and the same with the great hierarchs and pastors of the Church through the ages--AND THE PEOPLE WHO FOLLOWED THEM. For them there was no compromise with the world. They sought first the Kingdom of God and the righteousness of God, and all things were added to them. God gave what was necessary to those who were faithful to Him.
How do we begin to imitate them? How do we begin to put the Kingdom of God first? There were those who truly repented and cast away the world once and for all and then immediately dedicated themselves totally and exclusively to seeking salvation. Most of us are far too timid for that. How do we begin? We must begin within our hearts. We work from the inside out, beginning with the desire and the goal. We must open ourselves to holy desire, insatiable desire for prayer and worship. We make the efforts to say our morning and evening prayers, to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, not to indulge our tempers and our passions every time we are tempted. At church we may begin by holding and attending more Services during the week, starting with Vespers on Wednesdays and Fridays, all served with faithfulness and compunction, to the very best of our ability. Following Vespers we add some time of teaching about the faith: Bible study, the law of God, and lives of the saints. We remember the holy new hieromartyr Basil of Kineshma. How much his people cherished the time with him to learn and rejoice in the things of God after the full cycle of Services he served before walking back across town to get a couple of hours of sleep before beginning the full cycle again. Then we can add Compline with Evening Prayers, according to the Jordanville style. Next we can add Vespers on other days, then daily Services. Finally we dare totry to battle the laziness of the morning and add in some morning services: Midnight Office, then Matins and Hours on Wednesdays and Fridays, then on every day. We add more celebrations of the Divine Liturgy, celebrating the saints of God and the wondrous things God has done for us and finally Divine Liturgy every day. If we do not have Divine Liturgy every day, how are we to work toward the goal prescribed by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and lived by St. John of Kronstadt and St. John Maximovich, Communion in the Body and Blood of our Savior daily. Of course, we must commit once and for all to celebrating Vespers and Matins any time that we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, as an All-night Vigil when prescribed and separately when not, as prescribed by St. John Maximovich. All should, of course, attend these Services, or at least part of them, as part of the essential preparation for partaking of Holy Communion. As we do this we must add clergy to our parishes: more readers and subdeacons, deacons, and priests. For this we must pray that God will send more laborers into His harvest. I envision that in the case of our parish that this process may take several years, perhaps three to five, but we must set the goal and begin working toward it.
It is important for each of us to work within himself to increase his commitment. It does not help us to think that we are more committed than others around us. In the end we must bow before the Lord of the harvest and say, "We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do" (Luke 17:10). How important that we not be satisfied with what we are doing, but that we strive more and more toward the goal, the kingdom of God, toward the unceasing praise of God, toward unceasing prayer. The Church has set us a standard in her Typicon. Let us be satisfied with nothing less than striving to useits direction as our way into God's Kingdom. Our foolish and arrogant excuses do nothing but condemn us. Our business is not to defend ourselves or protect ourselves—God is our Defender and our Protector— but our business is obedience, which our holy Father Seraphim of Sarov says in even more important than prayer and fasting. Let us receive with joy and thankfulness this glorious standard and begin to try to mold our lives so that we can attain to its saving precepts. It is nothing more or less than a true expression of the Holy Tradition of the Church. If salvation is worth every effort, then let us begin. Hopefully we begin our increased efforts with gladness and with the sweetness of the love of God in our hearts as the motivating power—or we may also begin with the fear of death, judgment, and hell in our minds and hearts. Whether out of zeal or fear, it is primarily important that we wake up and move onward, that we realize how spiritually lazy we have become, how callous and insensitive and that we take up the beautiful labor of prayer and worship for our salvation as our primary business.
Truly, this is a matter of being faithful. We clergy must lead the way and provide the Services even when we think that not one person will attend in the flesh, knowing that the saints and angels will be there to encourage us. It is a matter of being faithful first. Then God blesses it. St. John of Kronstadt was determined to celebrate the Services of the Church daily, including the Divine Liturgy. At first only a few came, but St. John was faithful, and God blessed this faithfulness. By the end of his earthly life, we know that each time he celebrated the Divine Liturgy thousands were present; when he went to visit the sick, hundreds and sometimes thousands accompanied him. The Cathedral of St. Andrew was full to overflowing, and God gave his servant the strength to accomplish his labors essentially without sleep. I truly believe that God demands that we go with faith and decide to be faithful, to serve the Services of the Church and like the martyrs when they made their decisions to witness fully, so with them God gives us the strength we need at the decisive moment. He is our strength, our rest, our joy; He is everything for us.
Let us begin by forbidding ourselves the indulgence of shortening or skipping over our morning and evening prayers. We need this half-hour in the morning and in the evening. It is essential that we also pray for our families, spiritual and physical, and those others that we know need prayer. Let us not skip over prayers before and after meals, but be thankful to the God of heaven, recognizing Him as the giver and provider of all good things. Let us be at every Service available in our church, when it is within our power to do so. Many of us converts, when we first became Orthodox Christians, would not miss a single Service. Then perhaps we began to take the beautiful miracle of worship for granted. If we live too far from the church, we should consider moving. The first priority must the salvation of our soul, not the provision for the body. This goes for us and our families. When we are ready for greater faithfulness to the Typicon, to the Services ordered for our salvation, then they will be provided. There is not a clergyman here who would not be glad to hold more Services if he had those thirsting for them and asking for them.
Even in the sixteenth century children were not expected to attend them all, nor were the mothers who cared for them. But the fathers were expected in this case to read them for their families. We can begin by making sure that we pray in our rule of prayer in the morning and in the evening with as much faith and compunction as we can muster from our weak souls. Families can read lives of saints together. We now have wonderful editions especially written for children. We can read more canons and akathists in addition to our prayer rule when it is good to do so. Children can be taught how to read and sing canons and especially akathists. Even if it is not possible to attend every Service, we can attend some and parts of others. Let us begin by attending at least part of the Vigil on Saturday evening and the eves of Feasts and all of the Divine Liturgy on every Lord's Day and Feast Day. Let us resolve to attend at least one Service during the week. Going from Sunday to Sunday without a Service of worship in the church is too long for any of us. This is a beginning. The goal is nothing less than our coming together in the church every day to strengthen one another and to obtain from God the grace we need to live the week. If the world is our excuse, then we are simply too much attached to the world. We are giving too much power to the world. Let us give up television with its pretentious claim to give us education and relaxation. It is not relaxing; it tempts us in body and soul at every moment and tears our minds and souls apart. No wonder that we feel exhausted and frustrated after an evening of watching this insidious box, which is one of the greatest enemies of worship and prayer.
We can wean ourselves from sports events with all their subtle and not so subtle temptations. Why should we watch a group of people trying to imitate animal behavior as much as is possible, competing with one another to see which one is physically stronger and spiritually more gross. We can learn to read scriptures, lives of saints and other edifying works together. Let us give up useless arguments about finances and learn to put our trust in God as the saints have shown us in their own lives. We can go to sleep truly resting in God, not having to fight the temptations which come from the sensual images presented us by the media in the name of education or entertainment.
In our churches let us strive for the atmosphere that will give people exactly the soul-saving nourishment and strength they need from the Divine Services. Let us live in love, not in competition with one another. Let the Services be done "decently and in order," as the Holy Apostle Paul instructs and as the Typicon orders. Let there be no envying or strife; certainly let us renounce the petty politics and the useless curiosity about what others are doing, things which often disturb our life in the church. Let conversations be edifying, not politically motivated. The church must be a place of refuge, of encouragement, of compassion, of true instruction, and of strengthening love, a place of heartfelt prayer and worship in spirit and in truth. Our churches should be open so that they are always places of prayer and strength. People should be able to come to pray, to get strength from the clergy and faithful, to ask for third-day, ninth-day, fortieth-day, half year, and yearly Memorial Services and Molebens and Akathists beseeching the mercies of God and thanking Him for His manifold blessings and celebrating the glorious things He has done for us, glorifying His holy ones who reflect His glory, to receive special prayers and blessings, to receive the power to continue to struggle in the world. For this to be a reality, our priests must be freed from the responsibility of getting their support from jobs outside the church, and, again, we must pray that God will send more laborers into His harvest. We must, however, want this. We must pray for it with all our heart. We may simply continue to fulfill the minimal sacramental and worship needs of the people, or we may grow and flourish like our holy fathers, St. John of Kronstadt and St. John Maximovich. Certainly their vision was a church open worshipping, blessing, praying, teaching, directing, comforting, nourishing, and strengthening its faithful at all times, filled with the flames of candles and hearts aflame with the love of God.
* The Domostroi is in print and available through Amazon.com.
** Fr. John is the pastor of St. Mary of Egypt Russian Orthodox Church (ROCA) in Atlanta, Georgia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org